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G. K. Chesterton on Dan Brown: The Interview | Carl E. Olson | Ignatius Insight | September 14, 2009

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G.K. Chesterton, the famed British journalist, author, apologist, and wit recently sat down (in the form of his books, as he was not physically available) with Ignatius Insight editor Carl E. Olson and discussed the best-selling novelist Dan Brown—whose new novel, The Lost Symbol, is released September 15—and the importance and place of good and bad fiction.

Ignatius Insight: I was somewhat surprised to learn that you haven't been entirely negative about Dan Brown's novels, including The Da Vinci Code.

Chesterton: My taste is for the sensational novel, the detective story, the story about death, robbery and secret societies; a taste which I share in common with the bulk at least of the male population of this world. There was a time in my own melodramatic boyhood when I became quite fastidious in this respect. I would look at the first chapter of any new novel as a final test of its merits. If there was a murdered man under the sofa in the first chapter, I read the story. If there was no murdered man under the sofa in the first chapter, I dismissed the story as tea-table twaddle, which it often really was. But on the whole I think that a tale about one man killing another man is more likely to have something in it than a tale in which, all the characters are talking trivialities without any of that instant and silent presence of death which is one of the strong spiritual bonds of all mankind. I still prefer the novel in which one person does another person to death to the novel in which all the persons are feebly (and vainly) trying to get the others to come to life. [1]

Ignatius Insight: Are you saying, then, that you believe something good can be found in Brown's novels?

Chesterton: Every now and then, after wading through a hubbub of hundreds of words, we find a word that seems to have gone right by accident. We must not complain; nothing in this mortal life is perfect; not even bad poetry. [2]

In one sense, at any rate, it is more valuable to read bad literature than good literature. Good literature may tell us the mind of one man; but bad literature may tell us the mind of many men. A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author.

It does much more than that, it tells us the truth about its readers; and, oddly enough, it tells us this all the more the more cynical and immoral be the motive of its manufacture. The more dishonest a book is as a book the more honest it is as a public document. A sincere novel exhibits the simplicity of one particular man; an insincere novel exhibits the simplicity of mankind. ... men's basic assumptions and everlasting energies are to be found in penny dreadfuls and halfpenny novelettes. [3]

Ignatius Insight: And yet you went through a time when you were rather disgusted with modern fiction, right? 


Chesterton: I was a great reader of novels until I began to review them, when I naturally left off reading them. I do not mean to admit that I did them any injustice; I studied and sampled them with the purpose of being strictly fair; but I do not call that "novel reading" in the old enchanting sense. If I read them thoroughly I still read them rapidly; which is quite against my instincts for the mere luxury of reading. [4]

Ignatius Insight: I want to return to your remark that "men's basic assumptions and everlasting energies are to be found in penny dreadfuls and halfpenny novelettes." One of the central assumptions of The Da Vinci Code was that Jesus was a mere mortal man. Thoughts?

Chesterton: I maintain therefore that a man reading the New Testament frankly and freshly would not get the impression of what is now often meant by a human Christ. The merely human Christ is a made-up figure, a piece of artificial selection, like the merely evolutionary man. [5]

I was looking at a recent collection which contains the opinions of many famous free-thinkers about Jesus Christ. It is amusing to note how all of them differ among themselves; how one of them contradicts another and the last is always repudiated by the next. [6]

Ignatius Insight: Brown's opinion, it seems, is that Jesus was a decent man who taught the world about being kind and peaceful.

Chesterton: Of course, those who think Jesus was an ordinary man will talk of Him in an ordinary way. What I complain of is that, even then, they cannot talk of Him in a sensible way. For instance, Mr. Shaw has a long dialogue in which his imaginary Jesus feebly implies the idea that everything can be solved by love, and apparently love of any kind. Now there is not a grain of evidence that the historical Jesus of Nazareth ever said that any such emotion, selfish or sensual or sentimental, must be a substitute for everything else everywhere. Rousseau and the Romantics, in the time of Voltaire, sometimes said something a little like it; and the Church resisted it from the beginning, just as Bernard Shaw wakes up to resist it in the end. It is much more important for us to point out that the attack on the Faith breaks down, by its own folly on its own ground, than to express our own feelings about some of the random results of its invincible ignorance, when it stumbles upon ground more sacred. [7]

Ignatius Insight: And what of the claim, in The Da Vinci Code, that the Church has suppressed the gentle Jesus for a divinized Jesus who inspires fear, hatred, and violence?

Chesterton: We have all heard people say a hundred times over, for they seem never to tire of saying it, that the Jesus of the New Testament is indeed a most merciful and humane lover of humanity, but that the Church has hidden this human character in repellent dogmas and stiffened it with ecclesiastical terrors till it has taken on an inhuman character. This is, I venture to repeat, very nearly the reverse of the truth. The truth is that it is the image of Christ in the churches that is almost entirely mild and merciful. It is the image of Christ in the Gospels that is a good many other things as well. The figure in the Gospels does indeed utter in words of almost heart-breaking beauty his pity for our broken hearts. But they are very far from being the only sort of words that he utters. Nevertheless they are almost the only kind of words that the Church in its popular imagery ever represents him as uttering. That popular imagery is inspired by a perfectly sound popular instinct. The mass of the poor are broken, and the mass of the people are poor, and for the mass of mankind the main thing is to carry the conviction of the incredible compassion of God. But nobody with his eyes open can doubt that it is chiefly this idea of compassion that the popular machinery of the Church does seek to carry. [8]

Ignatius Insight: Does it surprise you that Brown, despite denying the divinity of Jesus, insists that he is a Christian? 



Chesterton: Of course it is possible to play an endless game with the word "Christian" and perpetually extend its epoch by perpetually diminishing its meaning. By the time that everybody has agreed that being a Christian only means thinking that Christ was a good man, it will indeed be true that few persons outside lunatic asylums can be denied the name of Christian. [9]

Ignatius Insight: In fact, you think it is more proper to describe Brown as a "Spiritualist" and not a Christian, based on the evidence. How so?


Chesterton: Now a Catholic starts with all this realistic experience of humanity and history. A Spiritualist generally starts with the recent nineteenth-century optimism, in which his creed was born, which vaguely assumes that if there is anything spiritual, it is happier, higher, lovelier and loftier than anything we yet know; and so opens all the doors and windows for the spiritual world to flow in. [10]

Now, being purely spiritual is opposed to the very essence of religion. All religions, high and low, true and false, have always had one enemy, which is the purely spiritual. [11]

Ignatius Insight: And so the supposedly higher nature of this spiritualism leads to an animosity toward doctrine and dogma?

Chesterton: There has arisen in our time an extraordinary notion that there is something humane, open-hearted or generous about refusing to define one's creed. Obviously the very opposite is the truth. Refusing to define a creed is not only not generous, it is distinctly mean. It fails in frankness and fraternity towards the enemy. It is fighting without a flag or a declaration of war. It denies to the enemy the decent concessions of battle; the right to know the policy and to treat with the headquarters. Modern "broad-mindedness" has a quality that can only be called sneakish; it endeavours to win without giving itself away, even after it has won. It desires to be victorious without betraying even the name of the victor. For all sane men have intellectual doctrines and fighting theories; and if they will not put them on the table, it can only be because they wish to have the advantage of a fighting theory which cannot be fought. [12] 


Ignatius Insight: Would you then argue that Brown, despite his protests to the contrary, has dogmatic convictions?

Chesterton: Man can be defined as an animal that makes dogmas. As he piles doctrine on doctrine and conclusion on conclusion in the formation of some tremendous scheme of philosophy and religion, he is, in the only legitimate sense of which the expression is capable, becoming more and more human. When he drops one doctrine after another in a refined scepticism, when he declines to tie himself to a system, when he says that he has outgrown definitions, when he says that he disbelieves in finality, when, in his own imagination, he sits as God, holding no form of creed but contemplating all, then he is by that very process sinking slowly backwards into the vagueness of the vagrant animals and the unconsciousness of the grass. Trees have no dogmas. Turnips are singularly broad-minded. [13]

In the things of conviction there is only one other thing besides a dogma, and that is a prejudice. [14]

Ignatius Insight: As you surely know, Brown's books have been especially popular among younger readers, many of whom believe he has offered them a fresh and honest perspective on the origins of Christianity.

Chesterton: What we call the new ideas are generally broken fragments of the old ideas. [15]

Of course, these young people do not know anything about historical Christianity; they are rather limited sort of people in a good many ways.

They are not the first generation of rebels to be Pagans. They are the first generation of rebels not to be Pagans. The young fool, the flower of all our cultural evolution, the heir of all the ages, and the precious trust we have to pass on to posterity--the young fool can no longer be trusted to be a Pantheist, let alone a good hearty Pagan. [16]

Ignatius Insight: Do you think some of these readers have lost their Christian beliefs, or presuppositions, because of their dislike for orthodox doctrine?

Chesterton: I do not say, as so many journalists say, that they have lost their Christianity. For it is the quite simple and sober truth that most of them never had any. It is not their fault, though every day that passes convinces me more and more that it is their misfortune. But the notion, so common in novels and newspapers, that this new generation has rebelled against old-fashioned orthodoxy is sheer stark historical ignorance. It is the worst of all kinds of historical ignorance; ignorance of the historical events we have seen ourselves. [17]

But what is actually the matter with the modern man is that he does not know even his own philosophy; but only his own phraseology. [18]

Ignatius Insight: Some of Brown's fans claim his novels are asking important, deep questions and providing meaningful answers. 


Chesterton: In numberless novels and newspaper articles, we have all read about a process which is still apparently regarded as novel or new; though it has been described in almost exactly the same terms for nearly a hundred years; and in slightly different terms for hundreds of years before that. I mean what is called the growth of doubt or the disturbance of faith; and the only point about it which is pertinent here is this; that it is always described as a revolt of the deeper parts of the mind against something that is comparatively superficial. We need not deny that modern doubt, like ancient doubt, does ask deep questions; we only deny that, as compared with our own philosophy, it gives any deeper answers. And it is a general rule, touching what is called modern thought, that while the questions are often really deep, the answers are often decidedly shallow. And it is perhaps even more important to remark that, while the questions are in a sense eternal, the answers are in every sense ephemeral. [19]

Ignatius Insight: In Brown's novel, Angels & Demons, readers are informed that Christianity is the enemy of science, and that science contains the ultimate answers. What do you make of that? 


Chesterton: It illustrates the precise fashion in which modern man has provided himself with an equally modern mythology. And in practical affairs that mythology may have something of the power of a religion. The mere word "Science" is already used as a sacred and mystical word in many matters of politics and ethics. It is already used vaguely to threaten the most vital traditions of civilization—the family and the freedom of the citizen. It may at any moment attempt to establish some unnatural Utopia full of fugitive negations. But it will not be the science of the scientist, but rather the science of the sensational novelist. [20]

Ignatius Insight: Brown's new novel, The Lost Symbol, once again features, for the third time, the "symbologist" Robert Langdon, an intellectual—

Chesterton: —you don't need any intellect to be an intellectual— [21]

Ignatius Insight: —who many see as the quintessential modern hero.


Chesterton: When a modern novel is devoted to the bewilderments of a weak young clerk who cannot decide which woman he wants to marry, or which new religion he believes in, we still give this knock-kneed cad the name of "the hero"—the name which is the crown of Achilles. [22] 

It is an odd thing that the words hero and heroine have in their constant use in connection with literary fiction entirely lost their meaning. A hero now means merely a young man sufficiently decent and reliable to go through a few adventures without hanging himself or taking to drink. [23]

Ignatius Insight: And yet, despite the literary poverty exhibited in Brown's previous novels, you are still planning to read The Lost Symbol? 


Chesterton: I have learned much from the good stories and more from the bad ones. I have always maintained that trash is a good aid to truth. I will venture to say that most of our historical ignorance, and even our literary ignorance, comes from our not having read enough of the trash of different times and places. ...

It struck me that it should be very interesting to try to trace through popular stories some notion of the ideal of conduct which now prevails. What is modern morality? What does strike the ordinary reader of such stories as pardonable, and what as unpardonable? What does he take for granted as something not to be profaned, and what is he quite accustomed to profaning already? It is an important question; perhaps is the only important question. But it can only be gathered from light literature; at least much more than from good. We cannot discover what are the everyday ethics of thousands of the people by reading the pamphlet of an ethical society which appealed to about three in every thousand. We cannot even study it properly in the vision of a great poet or the view of a great philosopher. But some glimpse of it can be got in stories that are meant to be read merely for amusement; which was how I myself read them. [24]

Ignatius Insight: Finally, we've talked about Brown's poor writing—

Chesterton (shaking his head): —writing badly on such an enormous scale; writing badly with such immense ambition of design— [25]

Ignatius Insight: —let's talk in conclusion about good fiction. What is the purpose and nature of good fiction? 


Chesterton: The first use of good literature is that it prevents a man from being merely modern. To be merely modern is to condemn oneself to an ultimate narrowness; just as to spend one's last earthly money on the newest hat is to condemn oneself to the old-fashioned. The road of the ancient centuries is strewn with dead moderns. Literature, classic and enduring literature, does its best work in reminding us perpetually of the whole round of truth and balancing other and older ideas against the ideas to which we might for a moment be prone. [26]


Every healthy person at some period must feed on fiction as well as fact; because fact is a thing which the world gives to him, whereas fiction is a thing which he gives to the world. It has nothing to do with a man being able to write; or even with his being able to read. [27]

You can find all of the new ideas in the old books; only there you will find them balanced, kept in their place, and sometimes contradicted and overcome by other and better ideas. The great writers did not neglect a fad because they had not thought of it, but because they had thought of it and of all the answers to it as well. [28]

ENDNOTES:

[1] "Fiction As Food", The Spice of Life and Other Essays.
[2] "On Bad Poetry", All I Survey.
[3] "On Smart Novelists and the Smart Set", Heretics.
[4] "Fiction As Food", The Spice of Life and Other Essays.
[5] "The Riddles of the Gospel", The Everlasting Man.
[6] "On Education", All I Survey.
[7] "The Scripture Reader," The Well and the Shallows.
[8] "The Riddles of the Gospel", The Everlasting Man.
[9] "The Erastian on the Establishment", The Common Man.
[10] "The Dangers of Necromancy," The Common Man.
[11] "Christian Science," The Use of Diversity.
[12] "Rabelasian Regrets," The Common Man.
[13] "Concluding Remarks on the Importance of Orthodoxy," Heretics.
[14] "Rabelasian Regrets," The Common Man.
[15] "On Reading," The Common Man.
[16] "On Modern 'Paganism'", All I Survey.
[17] Ibid.
[18] "The Revival of Philosophy--Why?", The Common Man.
[19] "The Well and the Shallows", The Well and the Shallows.
[20] "Popular Literature and Popular Science", Collected Works, Volume XXXIV: The Illustrated London News, 1926-1928.
[21] Father Brown Omnibus.
[22] "The Pickwick Papers", Charles Dickens.
[23] "The Heroines of Shakespeare", Brave New Family.
[24] "Modern Stories and Modern Morality", Collected Works, Volume XXXIV: The Illustrated London News, 1926-1928.
[25] "On Writing Badly," On Lying In Bed and Other Essays.
[26] "On Reading," The Common Man.
[27] "Fiction As Food", The Spice of Life and Other Essays.
[28] "On Reading," The Common Man.



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